Being a writer, I went about it by doing a story. I met the founder of the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center, Russell Simms, who is Cherokee and Seminole. I met Alice Hartshorn, who came from Texas; Marwin Begaye, a young full-blooded Navajo activist and artist (whose work is now nationally known) and Miguel Sague, from central America, and started attending his full moon ceremonies and other events where he talked about the spirituality of his people.
Thanks to Miguel, I later participated in my first sweat lodge. Miguel said his people believed in spreading their knowledge, and our participation was part of his pledge to himself that wherever he was, he would conduct the full moon, solstice and equinox ceremonies of his tradition. Just before we left, my partner Margaret and I were asked to serve on the board of the Caney Indian Spiritual Circle. Miguel's salsa band played for a surprise party at a Pittsburgh restaurant I organized for Margaret's birthday, the last gathering of our Pittsburgh friends.
These Native people and others I met for the story I did for a local weekly, as well as the fiction, essays and interviews I was reading by contemporary Native writers, gave me the beginning of a feel for contemporary Native life in North America. I learned to approach both contemporary and historical information with humility and openness, for I was also learning why contemporary Native people are a bit skeptical of non-Native interest. It has often resulted in enthusiasm without understanding, and at worst, exploitation and cultural theft.
Some of the Indians I met in Pittsburgh were native-born western Pennsylvanians, as I was. But none of them were from tribes that were Native to that place. They were not part of the history and cultures I was reading about in the past of my home land. I did see some dances of the Seneca and Delaware demonstrated by the Allegeny River Dancers from a reservation in New York. But that's as close as I came, outside the few books on the subject, notably Indians in Pennsylvania, by Paul A. W. Wallace (which Russell Simms said seemed pretty accurate.)
All the feelings I had for the woods and landscape where I grew up were given new grounding and meaning in Wallace's descriptions of Seneca, Shawnee, Wynadot, Creek and Delaware life, and before them the fabled Monogahela People: they lived in the region for centuries, but by the time the Europeans arrived they were gone: some say they dispersed, some say they essentially died out owing to the diseases the Europeans brought to the coast, to which Indians had no immunity, spread inland by trading and traveling Indians, so this culture was eradicated as a consequence of invaders they never saw. The vast majority of American Indians who perished after contact died of these diseases.
My own residual feelings for the scraps of natural landscape I experienced, and the nature of the place (the contours and colors, the weather, the air itself) found an order and meaning in Wallace's descriptions of, for example, how Delaware children were raised. They were respected and cherished, and their education was a community responsibility. They were taught woodcraft and gardening, a knowledge of plants and animals, and the tribal legends and traditions, and religious beliefs.
"The basic principle of Delaware religion was that spirit was the prime reality," Wallace writes. "All things had souls: not only man, but also animals, the air, water, trees, even rocks and stones." Another scholar observed that the Delaware "trod lightly through his natural environment, merging himself sympathetically into the world of living and non-living things."
Here was the essence of what resonated so strongly in me when I heard that speaker at college: first, the sense of aliveness in everything, that every element of the world is sacred and has soul; second, the deep acceptance of the complexity, even the tragedy, inherent in human relationship to other life, particularly the fact that we live by killing and consuming life. The religion I was used to didn't really confront this, and the thinking of the non-Native world was one-sided (there was no problem because only humans have souls) or they dealt with this paradox that every child feels when we see a dying animal, by avoiding it, by denial.
For the Delaware who lived where I had lived, the place of humans in the universe was dramatized in the chief annual ritual, the Big House Ceremony, held over twelve days and nights in October. A wooden structure of perhaps 50 by 30 feet, the Big House was as symbolic as it was solid: its floor was the earth, with the underworld below. Its four walls were the four directions; its ceiling the sky dome, with the home of the creator above. At the center of the house was a post, symbolizing the World Tree. Along the floor from the east door to the west was the winding White Path, along which the dancers danced, solemnly following the path of life with its twists and turns from birth to death, around the World Tree.
A few years later I researched and wrote another article, about the little known fact that many non-Natives in those 18th century days of contact, were deeply impressed by Native life. There were even people known as white Indians, usually captives who were so absorbed in Native life that they remained or returned, even after being "rescued" (many had to brought back to white society by force, and they promptly escaped back.)Part of the reason was Native spirituality, and the strength of the cultures based on it. One man who lived five years with the Delaware wrote: "As a nation they may be considered fit examples for many of us Christians to follow. "They certainly follow what they are taught to believe right more closely, and I might say more honestly, in general, than we Christians do the divine precepts of our Redeemer....I know I am influenced to good, even at this day, more from what I learned among them, than what I learned among people of my own color."
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